What is an Expat?

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Written By Matt Shannon

Most people have heard the term “expat,” but what is an expat?

Expat is actually a shortened version of the word “expatriate”. An expat is simply a person who lives in a country that is not their native country. 

Essentially, an expat is anyone who has left their home country to live and work abroad, typically for a period of time. Most expats usually do not plan to stay indefinitely in their new host country, but they often live large portions of their lives abroad, sometimes in several different countries. 

What Makes a Person an Expat?

There are many different opinions on what exactly makes an expat. Are migrants or permanent immigrants also considered expats? Is a person who moved to a country indefinitely an expat? At Expatriant, it doesn’t matter who you are or what your story is. If you are living abroad, you are an expat. 

Different Types of Expats

There are actually a few different kinds of expats in most places. There are those who are in the country for a period of time, it can be 6 months or 10 years. The other group of expats is those who move to another country indefinitely. There are also those who are sent to a country and those who just show up and carve their own path. Would you be surprised to know that there are even expats living in their own home country? Read on to find out about the different types of expats around the world.

Corporate Expats 

When people think of the term expat, they usually think of a person who was sent by their company to another country for an assignment. This is usually top management with specialized skills or significant business experience. For the longest time, this was one of the largest groups of expats. Over time, especially in the last 20 years, it has become increasingly common not to send employees abroad. Nowadays, it is much easier to find Western-educated local talent in just about any country. For this reason, many international companies prefer to hire local managers instead of sending their employees from home. 

Corporate expats are usually provided with very enticing expat packages, which include a higher salary than at home, accommodation, and sometimes even a driver. These expats usually have very little knowledge of the local language or culture but have very specific business knowledge. They usually serve for 1-2 years and either return home or are sent to another country.

Localized Expats

In many countries of the world, there are what we call localized expats. Meaning that while they are living abroad, they typically have some connection to their host country. For example, maybe they studied the language in university, have a spouse from the country, or were just interested in the culture. 

These localized expats are usually paid more like a local than a corporate expat despite having extensive knowledge of the local market and business community. Of course, they usually take advantage of the fact that they speak other languages than the local language and this provides opportunities that locals don’t have. Many localized expats also speak the local language well.


The next group of “expats” is a relatively new group. In countries of the world, which have developed very fast over the last few decades there is an emerging group of expats, which we call repats. They are actually natives of the country but were typically born and raised abroad. They often speak the local language very well in addition to being native speakers of other languages like English, French or German. 

In countries like China, Russia, and India, there have been increasing numbers of people moving back to the countries where their parents or grandparents were from and becoming top managers. It is an interesting trend for sure and it will only increase as developing nations become a larger portion of the world economy.

Immigrant Expats

The last group of expats gets a bad reputation and that is permanent immigrants. Many people do not consider immigrants to be expats. This, of course, depends on your definition of expat, but for the most part, immigrants develop skills in their new country and become high performing members of society. Therefore, we believe they should be considered expats as well. 

Why Become an Expat

People choose to live abroad and become an expat for a million different reasons. Some of the most popular reasons are connected with advancing your career, following a loved one, looking for adventure, or just a change of scenery. 

If you are looking to advance your career, becoming an expat can be one of the best decisions. As an expat, you will be challenged to do the simplest of tasks in a foreign country. At the same time, if you are working in an office abroad, and chances are it is much smaller than in the US or Western Europe and you will have additional responsibilities. This gives you the opportunity to develop faster. If you want more information on how to find a job abroad, check out our guide to using LinkedIn as an international job search tool.

Following a loved one is also a reason that many people become expats. If your spouse is becoming an expat and you are tagging along, there are many other considerations. Will you be able to assimilate into the local culture? Sometimes, it is even more important that you are outgoing as a non-working spouse. 

These are the most popular two reasons, but there are thousands of viable reasons to become an expat. If you are interested to know what jobs expats typically hold, check out our article on popular jobs for expats

Considerations Before Becoming an Expat

There are a number of things to think about before becoming an expat. How hard is it to obtain a residence permit? What is the cost of living? Will I be able to learn the local language?

Visa and Residency Considerations

Probably the most important thing to consider is how are you going to stay in the country legally. It is one thing to go on vacation to a place, but to live there long term, you almost always need a residence permit or long term visa. 

If you are sent to a country by your company or hired before you arrive, your company will almost always handle visa formalities on your behalf. 

In the event that you do not have a job lined up, you can check out our country page to learn more about visa requirements and residence options in each individual country. iVisa is also an excellent resource for checking visa requirements. You can enter your citizenship and the country you are going to and they will tell you which visas are available. It doesn’t hurt that the prices and level of service are unbeatable. 

Cost of Living

Once you have decided on a country and learned more about the options available to enable you to stay long term, you need to understand what the cost of living will be like. This will also help you understand and evaluate local job offers, something that many people struggle with. Maybe salaries are only half of what they would be in your home country, but the cost of living is three times less. You would be better off living in such a country. 

The best resource for determining the cost of living in any given country is Numbeo. They have a calculator to let you calculate the difference in the cost of living between your current city and the city, which you are considering abroad. Their data is based completely on people living in those cities, so it is much more accurate than other sources. 

Importance of the Local Language

When deciding where to become an expat, one consideration that is usually overlooked is the local language. Will you need to speak the local language well to live comfortably in the country? Some countries are much more open than others. Europe, for example, is very welcoming to outsiders and English is spoken just about everywhere. Russia, on the other hand, can be a very difficult country to live in if you don’t speak Russian. It isn’t impossible, but Russia is ranked dead last for fitting in, and the language barrier is the biggest problem according to Internations

It would be important to know this information before arriving regardless of what your language learning ambitions are. Check out our article on the importance of learning the local language. 

How to Succeed as an Expat

Being an expat will test your perseverance, worth ethic, communication skills, and a vast array of other skills, many of which you never knew you had. At Expatriant, it is our goal to give you all of the tools and knowledge needed to take your career or life abroad. We believe the following three traits are most important to success as an expat. 

Being Open-minded

If you are going to live in another country, you have to be open-minded. It doesn’t matter if you understand and speak the local language, there will be cultural differences. Sometimes, they will be minor, but other times, things will be done completely differently than in your country and even seem illogical. 

The expats who are most successful understand that there will at times be significant cultural differences. The key to being successful is how you handle these cultural differences. Do you get upset that the local people view issues differently than in your culture? The political systems of other countries can also be very different. Just realize this and don’t dwell on it.  

When abroad, it is important to be open-minded and embrace differences. You will learn a lot about your home country and the local people during your time as an expat.

Engaged with the Locals

When you become an expat, your ability to get along with the locals will be extremely important. Most people who go abroad are probably looking to make local friends and learn the language. This is one of the best steps you can take to start feeling like home in your host country. It will help you solve problems when they arise (and they will), help you understand the local culture better, open up career opportunities, and more.  

In most countries of the world, the local people are extremely friendly towards expats and tourists. Therefore, it should not be terribly difficult to find new friends in a country. There are all kinds of groups out there in major world cities and you can find them on Meetup.com, Couchsurfing, Internations, Facebook expat groups, and LinkedIn groups.  

Engaged with the Expat Community

While you are probably very motivated to learn the local language and assimilate into the local culture, it is still very important to be engaged with the expat community. Try asking your average American or European about immigration and visa laws in their home country. Chances are, they won’t know the first thing about the topic. This is just one of many topics that expats typically know much more about than the local population. 

You will also find that the best networking opportunities are within the expat community. Check out our tips for networking abroad.

One of the best resources to meet expats and locals in a new country would be Internations, an expat social network. 


We hope that you have a much better idea of what it means to be an expat. If you are thinking of going abroad for the first time, we offer unique career consulting services to help you make the leap. Every move involves risk, but if you are serious about going abroad, we will help you come up with the best strategy to be successful. If you are interested, take a look at our career consulting section.